Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 21


A line of aristocratic women waited at the doors of the chateau, in full evening dress in mid-afternoon, tiaras in their piled-up hair, long gloves sheathing white arms, gowns glittering with seed pearls. Many bore what looked like exotic foreign orders of merit.

Aged manservants, managing to look both aloof and obsequious, held silver trays laden with tall glasses of sparkling, amber-gold liquid. A string quartet was playing something pompous on the terrace.

‘Do you think we’ve been killed?’ asked Harry.

‘It doesn’t seem so bad if we have,’ said Tolly.

The dozen walking wounded Tommies clambering out of the lorry behind them stood on the driveway and gaped. It was how they might have imagined Heaven’s lobby, staffed by coiffed and elegant angels. Officers’ Heaven.

The soldiers felt too filthy, too unshaven for this. They became conscious of their lice. They fidgeted, scratching only furtively. Each mentally moderated his language.

A butler-type with the profile of a Shaftsbury Avenue matinee idol shepherded them towards the line of women. The Tommies shuffled forward, glancing at each other, hesitant.

The women greeted them with ravishing white smiles, reached to the silver trays and offered each man a glass of cool, perfect champagne. The Tommies accepted the proffered flutes with dirty hands and mumbled their thanks in a dozen accents. None had ever tasted champagne before. They were afraid of dropping the glasses.

‘We extend to you all our heartiest welcome,’ said one of the women in a voice of ringing crystal, a seemingly senior angel with a particularly grand tiara and a blobby Hanoverian face. ‘We hope you enjoy your stay with us. I and my Ladies’ – the capitalisation of ‘Ladies’ was implicit – ‘will do all in our power to make your well-earned convalescence a pleasant and comfortable one. Please follow’ – the butler-type, the Tommies were too taken aback to catch his name – ‘to the bath house.’

Bath house? A bath?

The butler, or major domo, or whatever he was, led the Tommies around the side of the chateau into a low building with a red-tiled roof, apparently a stable. The men stripped. Their service dress was gingerly gathered by lesser manservants amid a panicked diaspora of jumping, scuttling arthropods and taken away at arm’s length while the major domo remained by the doors, backing fastidiously away as the bundles of stinking khaki were carried out past him.

A huge stone bath-trough once designed to accommodate the thoroughbred carriage horses of a long-gone local duc, an early guest of Madame Guillotine, had been filled with steaming water and furnished with bars of pungent green soap, like Fairy’s but French. It did not take long for the water to turn greasily turbid amid its splashing, jabbering, scrubbing population of astonished but delighted Tommies.

Square basins along one wall contained more hot water. Toothbrushes, tooth powder, razors and mirrors were laid out ready. The men shaved themselves eagerly but erratically, being out of practice, emerging looking like the losers in a cat fight. Gums bled from gingivitis and over-enthusiastic brushing.

The major domo gestured them towards a wooden bench piled with worn but clean white shirts, woollen jumpers and trousers in assorted faded blues and browns. A selection of slipper-type footwear was ranked on the stone-flagged floor, occasioning scuffles for matching pairs that fitted.

Once the men were dressed, some more successfully than others, the major domo led them out of the stable through a side-entrance to the chateau proper and along a peach-painted corridor lined with portraits of moist-eyed French aristos.

As they entered a tall, light room Tolly’s eyes flew to a polished walnut grand piano at one end. A piano!

A long table had been covered with a pale blue cloth and laid with shell dump-sized piles of bread, wide china bowls on plates, confusing inventories of cutlery, mysterious-looking condiments, curling silver candelabra and, promisingly, wine glasses. The Tommies sat down self-consciously, feeling like a rabble of Oliver Twists who had blundered into the Lord Mayor’s banquet.

Servants came in bearing a steaming tureen the capacity of a river barge. Maids served portions of clear, seafood-smelling soup, scalding hot. A sommelier poured out a white wine that tasted different from the usual estaminet offerings. Better.

‘Well, Bumfluff got his Blighty but I reckon we’re doing all right for ourselves here,’ said Harry, eyeing the maids going around offering second helpings of soup.

‘Seems a bit extreme, losing your foot,’ said Tolly. ‘Not that I’m sorry to see the back of the bastard.’

‘He won’t get his third stripe now, but I imagine he’ll look after himself. He’s the sort. Pity about Ben, he was a good lad.’

‘Looks like we were lucky.’

‘We were that.’

There was veal in a salty, buff-coloured sauce that occasioned some suspicion and scraping-aside by Tommies accustomed to seeing what meat they were eating, served with too-thin beans and unlimited boiled potatoes dusted with green stuff – feenerb or something, according to the maids. There was a pudding like a kind of hot custard tart without the crust, followed by an unfamiliar and odiferous cheese. The food was altogether foreign, the men concurred, but better than that bloody bully. Red wine was brought in place of the white and voted the better of the two.

The candles were lit as the light faded, earlier every evening now, and warm gleams danced on the silverware. The Tommies began to lose their self-consciousness. The talk waxed to a hubbub as they swopped tales of the injuries and illnesses that had brought them here, of thwarted Minnies, dud Woollies, miraculous escapes; of bullets impeded by divine intervention, of jammy mates who had earned the coveted Blighty and some good pals who hadn’t. And what was this set-up? Speculation swirled. Must be some Lady, a duchess at least, doing her bit. Well, God bless ’er and good on ’er! Cheers!

The conversation died to a reverent, aching silence when one of the aristocratic women, a coltish but remote beauty with white satin cheekbones, sat at the piano to play. Armagnac was served.

Tolly recognised the Chopin ballade. The beauty of the girl and the music reminded him of Ruth. His heart gave a stifled wail. To come out of the trenches into this, to be reminded that there was still a world of grace and loveliness, of candlelight and Chopin… This was how life could be – would be – after the war. He and Ruth would make a home of life, light and love.

He was shamefacedly surprised to find tears burning at the back of his eyes. He snapped the emotion off at the root and gulped at his brandy, cauterising the feeling with alcohol. He glanced sideways at Harry, concerned his friend would catch him being soppy.

But Harry was lost in some dream, gazing at the girl. Quiet sighs could be heard around the room. The boiling of guns from the Front was faint with distance.



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